Will it be straight to hell?

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When the heavy steel doors of Durham Prison swing open on the morning of 21 January, all eyes will be on a slight Glaswegian as he swaggers confidently towards his hired limousine.

One of Scotland’s most notorious underworld figures, Paul Ferris, ever the showman, is planning to celebrate his release back into society in flamboyant fashion.

After serving seven years of a nine-year sentence for gun-running, Ferris has no intention of going into hiding south of the Border. He has told everyone who cares to listen that he is going straight - and going home to the east end of Glasgow in style.

It would be all too easy to perpetuate the myth already surrounding the man to say Glasgow’s underworld awaits the return of Ferris with baited breath. Things have moved on in the seven years since he was last on the tough streets of the city’s east end - the violent reign of Ferris and his cronies is now a fading memory, as outdated as the famously garish 1,000 Versace shirts he wears.

The well-defined territories of the city’s underworld, once dominated by several crime families, now look more like a fragmented map of the Balkans. Dogged by years of in-fighting, backstabbing and on-going feuds, Glasgow’s once-dominant crime godfathers are largely confined to the history books.

A new breed of younger, equally ruthless, operators dominate the city’s lucrative smuggling and drug trades. But a fortnight before Paul Ferris’s release, the word in gangland is that prisoner PD 1510 will leave Durham Prison with a long-standing bounty on his head. Underworld figures believe the former gunrunner may yet have a part to play in Glasgow’s long and bloody criminal history.

Ferris is typically indignant about the speculation, claiming he is making his comeback, not as a gangster but as a writer - and he has published a book to prove it. But the allegedly reformed villain is already finding that the pen is as mighty as the sword - and equally effective for cultivating enemies.

In his book, The Ferris Conspiracy, the former gangland enforcer attacks his former confidant, Thomas McGraw, the leading underworld figure widely known as "the Licensee".

In particular, Ferris alleges in his book that the 1992 murders of his best friends, Bobby Glover and Joe "Bananas" Hanlon, were carried out by two London hitmen and that, afterwards, the dead bodies were taken to McGraw’s Glasgow pub, the Caravel.

If he is spoiling for a fight Ferris has picked a considerable foe, as the Licensee’s henchmen are said to play an on-going, key role in the distribution of drugs across the West Coast of Scotland.

Even the most experienced Strathclyde Police detective will tell you that if, as he claims, Ferris intends going straight, he isn’t exactly making things easier for himself on his release.

"Ferris will be under scrutiny when he comes out, there will be no doubt about that," says one detective. "His form speaks for itself. He has been a highly dangerous career criminal since he was a teenager. It would be remiss of the police not to monitor his progress if and when he returns home. He hasn’t exactly led a low-profile life on the inside, and a lot of police officers have been left very upset by the accusations and veiled threats carried in his book.

"If this is his attempt to go straight, " he says, "making even more enemies on both sides of the fence isn’t exactly an ideal start."

The Paul Ferris story, largely thanks to his own lust for publicity and his skilled handling of the media, is already the stuff of legend in Glasgow’s underworld.

When he first came to real public prominence in the early 1990s Ferris was already known as a prolific crook and ruthless enforcer in the underworld of Glasgow’s east end. As his notoriety grew he became one of the city’s shrewdest and most dangerous gangland operators.

Born on 10 November, 1963, in Blackhill, a crumbling slum a few miles east of the city centre and then one of the toughest housing estates in Britain, Ferris claimed the direction of his life changed dramatically when he turned on members of a local family who were bullying him. Advised by an uncle to retaliate, Ferris, then 13 and armed with a knife, stabbed each of the youths responsible. It was this style of violent retribution that would attract the attention of Glasgow crime godfather Arthur Thompson Snr.

At the age of 16 Ferris became a leg-man for the Thompson firm and quickly established himself as a fearless thief, specialising in snatching trays of jewellery from city shops.

His taste for violence was evident early in his criminal career, but despite being linked to a series of attacks - including stabbings, slashings, blindings and knee-cappings - Ferris would always emerge relatively unscathed.

As he grew in confidence, and as Glasgow’s heroin market flourished in the 1980s, the ambitious Ferris would also secretly organise his own criminal operations under the cover of apparently legitimate business interests - anything from double glazing to used cars, to security services.

In 1990 Ferris finally broke free of the Thompson family after walking out of the firm with another gang member, Tam Bagan, claiming Arthur Snr had shown him a lack of respect.

It was after this that Ferris became closely linked to rival big-time operator, the Licensee. McGraw had earned his moniker because he controlled his vast taxi and ice-cream van empire from his pub, the Caravel, in Glasgow’s tough Barlanark scheme. But the Licensee’s enemies claimed he had earned the title because of a close relationship with Strathclyde Police, who they alleged had set him up as a underworld supergrass.

Not surprisingly, Ferris’s ambitions quickly caused tension with McGraw. Their deadly partnership broke down when Ferris accused his ally of setting him up in a police drugs bust in Rothesay. He escaped conviction for the bust in 1990, but afterwards his rivalry with the Thompson family and McGraw continued to grow. It was at its peak when he was charged with killing Arthur Thompson Jnr, who was shot outside his family’s home in Provanmill in August 1991.

That murder was originally linked to rivalry between McGraw and Thompson Snr but the finger of blame was eventually pointed at Ferris, who had an axe to grind against both crime clans.

On the day of Thompson Jnr’s funeral, Joe "Bananas" Hanlon and Bobby Glover, both good friends of Ferris and also suspected by police of involvement in the murder, were found executed in a car placed on the funeral route. But Ferris, a man who thrived on his quest for power and money, escaped revenge because he was locked up in Shotts jail on remand for a knee-capping.

To this day it is widely believed in the criminal world that Ferris was involved in the shooting of Arthur Thompson Jnr and that Glover and Hanlon were with him that night. True or not, Hanlon and Glover paid the price. Ferris remained untouched and his acquittal at the end of his 4 million murder trial made him an underworld hero.

What made Ferris so famous - and subsequently so feared - was that he had not only taken on, but beaten the most powerful criminal clan Glasgow had ever known and had successfully taken on the police.

A free man again, Ferris continued to exploit his criminal contacts across Britain to broker deals in whatever made money, from forged currency and documents to drugs, guns, or stolen cement mixers.

With his army of enemies growing in Glasgow, Ferris began to expand his criminal empire in Edinburgh and the north-west of England. But he needed heavy artillery to enforce his influence.

In the end his craving for more power led to his downfall - his determination to stockpile machine guns and heavy weapons attracted the attention of MI5 and Special Branch, leading to his arrest and conviction for gun-running in 1995.

Last month Ferris prepared for his release by issuing a statement vowing to put his colourful criminal career behind him and make a living as a writer. He said:

"There is just one option open to me when I get out of prison - to go straight. I’ve had plenty of time to ponder my future. Going straight is my new mission. My plan is to become a decent, loving father, to provide my family with security, free from a life of crime."

He added: "I know quite a few people - some involved in criminal activity, some not - and I’m sure my wishes to move on will be fully accepted. No doubt I have many enemies in Glasgow, including some rogue police and their criminal partners. They’d love nothing more than for something unsavoury to happen to me. But I don’t think it’s up to the criminal world to leave me alone, quite the opposite."

Time will tell what the future holds for Paul Ferris but according to one CID officer his craving for power and money will bring him down again.

"Notoriety is a drug for someone like Ferris and he gets a real kick from intimidating people," the officer says. "But the bottom line is he is greedy and was used to a certain lifestyle before he was sent down.

"It will come as no surprise to me and many of my colleagues if he is back to his old tricks within days of his release. He may think he’s clever but he hasn’t got the brains or the conviction to lead an honest life."

Break-outs of creativity

HE WAS once branded as "Scotland’s most violent man", a notorious Glasgow killer. He is now a celebrated sculptor and writer and the story of his life has been made into a hit film and musical.

Jimmy Boyle, pictured below, is the first in a line of Scottish criminals who have channelled their energy into art. The first quarter century of his life was spent in a blur of crime, alcohol and drugs under the hood of gang rivalry. It culminated in the brutal murder of gangland baron William "Babs" Rooney, for which he was jailed in 1967 at the age of 23 - a murder for which Boyle still denies culpability.

Incarcerated in Barlinnie’s notorious special unit, he was a parameter of the unruly and was given a further six years after the violent Porterfield Prison riots in Inverness in 1972.

But the gritty ex-con from the Gorbals and close friend of Billy Connolly discovered art and went on to become an acclaimed sculptor and author, penning two autobiographies and two novels , putting his history behind him.

The story of Hugh Collins, who served 16 years of a life sentence for murder, has a similar ring. Born into crime, with a bank robber father, he became ringleader of the Glasgow Shamrock gang at 15, battling rival gangs with an array of steak knives and meat cleavers. Ten years later he butchered his foe, William Mooney, stabbing him in the neck and chest. Behind bars in Perth, he stabbed three prison officers.

Collins reinvented himself through writing and sculpture. Like Boyle, he wrote two volumes of memoirs, Autobiography of a Murderer and Walking Away. "Art changed my whole life and I’ve never looked back," he has said.

Larry Winters, who also served time in the Bar-L special unit with Boyle, was sentenced to life for the murder of a Soho barman and his story is told in the Oscar-winning short film, Silent Scream. Winters and Boyle were both De La Salle boys - victims of the brutal Catholic Brothers school regime, which was rife with sexual and physical abuse and which Boyle said was worse than any prison.

Double cop-killer, Howard Wilson turned to the pen, winning the Koestler Award for his crime thriller, Angels of Death, which he wrote behind bars, making murderer-turned-author almost a clich in Scottish criminal culture.